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Holocaust Story Faker is No Angel

HNN's Response to Harris Salomon's Complaints

Herman Rosenblat went on ABC's "Good Morning America" Wednesday February 18 and told America that he didn’t lie when he invented a story about a young girl throwing him apples at the fence of a German concentration camp during World War II.  He believed it in his mind, and he would do it again, he said.

Why would a survivor who endured Buchenwald and Schlieben concoct a false story sixty years later and say he really believed it?  Why would he also insist he didn’t hurt anybody and wasn’t sorry when his efforts have left a literary agent, a children’s author, two publishers, and numerous family members littered on the highway of hurt?

As Diane Sawyer, the host on "Good Morning America" suggested, it is mystifying.   On the other hand, the explanation may be more straightforward.  Herman’s nephew told me, “He did it for the attention and for the money.”

Inventing a Story

Why did Herman invent a story? A possible explanation lies in the area of the psychology of survivor memory.  Many who want to give Herman the benefit of the doubt attribute the false story to the burdens he carried as a survivor.  Trauma survivors do struggle with the burdens of memory.  In Herman’s case, there were in fact double traumas – the trauma of his youth in the camps and also of a robbery-shooting a half century later.  A key event for Herman was his separation from his mother in the Piotrkow ghetto.  On her instruction, in words he never heard from her before, he wrote in his memoir, he went to his brothers; she was deported to the gas in Treblinka. 

Hence, Herman’s mother not surprisingly played a key role when he later refigured his memory for story-telling.  Chronologically, she came to him first in a dream when he was in the hospital after the Brooklyn shooting in 1992 telling him to tell the apple story.  She then came to him second in his story-telling on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" in 1996 in a dream he claimed he had at Schlieben.  In this dream, his mother said she would send him an angel.  The key figure in Herman’s story was actually his mother (not Roma), who provided permission to him to live and told him to tell his story.

But this approach, which roots Herman’s false story in his responses to trauma and radical separation, seems to me in the end to be unsatisfying.  Survivors from Piotrkow and several family members suggest that even the story about his mother is suspect.  The separation between mother and son at Piotrkow occurred and was important, as I have discovered, but it didn’t happen as Herman wrote in his memoir.  Contrary to Herman’s depiction, the action was not a selection in front of SS officers who inspected and sent people left or right, with his mother sent to the death line with the boy clinging to her. Rather, it was a sorting of people on Jewish Council-compiled lists with or without work cards.  Herman’s brothers already had work cards and they had the younger boy with them from the start. 

In addition, while Herman asserted in his appearance on television that he sought only to do good in telling his story, there were actually numerous family efforts to talk with Herman about “truth.”   These produced tensions. Herman did not lie to family members about the apple story: they knew that it was made up. It suddenly appeared only in late 1995. Herman simply insisted this is what must be done, this is what people want. Herman’s nephew, Ron Rosenblat, says Herman said: "This is show business."  Herman and Roma thus proceeded with their Holocaust love story for apparently simple reasons: for the attention and possible financial benefit. Doing so made him feel important, another nephew, Bernard Haykel, told me, and Roma complied with what Herman wanted.

After the robbery, things were difficult.  Herman lost his business.  His son Kenneth was shot and paralyzed. Records of the U. S. Internal Revenue Service show that a substantial tax lien was placed on Herman Rosenblat for unreported income and unpaid taxes in 1994 dating back to 1988, due to unpaid payroll taxes. Herman’s record included tax cheating and taking money from others, including family members, without repaying. Thus, after victory in a love-story contest led Oprah to invite them on the show, the Rosenblats proceeded to erase their own real stories and to tell a fabricated story.  It then became difficult to turn back.  “It was natural for them to lie, to cheat, and this is something they lived with,” their son Kenneth said in a painful statement to reporter Gabriel Sherman of the New Republic, when Herman admitted the story was false. Jutta Rosenblatt, Herman’s brother Sam’s widow, spoke even more harshly, telling Sherman and also me that Herman made many things up and all now rests on his conscience.

The Culture-Makers

I think the rest evolved also because of enticements in the culture and the active intervention by culture-makers who helped sponsor and generate new opportunities for Herman. Our culture underwrites this sort of mythmaking.  The culture and the culture-makers work to turn traumatic stories into sentimental narratives with happy endings.  The desire is to find in Holocaust stories innocence, goodness, human kindness, and redemption.  In this case, the "Oprah Winfrey Show" was the gateway, but it didn’t stop there.  Many others offered the apple. With Oprah’s endorsement, the story had power to appear elsewhere, and then numerous others were serially involved, elaborating the story into further tellings and publications, producing a movie project, creating a children’s book, and then making a memoir as well as arranging appearances and more – a small industry. 

Herman thus fashioned his tale with help from others like ready-wear clothing for the market.  His story transformed the horror of the Nazi camps into a setting for human connection among innocents.  In his fantasy, which evoked mythic folktales of magic apples and of innocent children hiding amidst the beasts, a slightly older youth in the camp and a younger girl in hiding outside the camp found each other daily at the fence and avoided detection. Hunger, terror, lice and other terrible conditions, history as actuality in the camps, were erased.The camp and real camp experiences were airbrushed as backdrop for a love story.  Roma, hiding 210 miles away, was abandoned in this version of the story. Herman’s real story, surviving because of his band of brothers, was ignored as well.

Harris Salomon, the president of Atlantic Overseas Pictures, who hopes to continue even now after all this drama to make a movie, told me late last year that Herman’s story was “deeply true” and was also “a true miracle.”  Salomon also shared his own motives, saying that a “candy coated” approach to the Holocaust can bring Holocaust education to a broadened audience. Attention and fame now surely beckoned with book and movie deals. Penguin Berkley believed it had a “sure best-seller.”  Salomon promoted the movie as “the first Holocaust love story.” Herman obtained a substantial book advance, his literary agent told me.  He was also on a speakers’ list at $5000 per appearance.  But the reality was that there was no love story, it didn’t happen; it was all just in Herman’s head.  Herman and Roma offered a Holocaust Hallmark fantasy and others snapped it up. The literary agent, the children’s book author, the publishing companies took the losses. 

Now a surprisingly unrepentant Herman and the movie producer Harris Salomon, who has played a huge role in all this, seek to continue.  They told ABC newsman Dan Harris that the book and movie will now focus on the love story and also on why a Holocaust survivor might make up a Holocaust story. Yes, Diane Sawyer – it is mystifying.  But it may also be more straightforward. As someone who has researched this closely, I believe Herman did it for attention and for money and that he continues for the same reasons.